Kava – Actions, Uses, and Cautions

Please note: Research on the medicinal uses of herbs, alone and in combination with synthetic drugs, is new and not yet definitive. If you already take prescription drugs, have a serious or chronic medical condition, or are just unsure if herbal remedies are appropriate for you, please consult with your physician before using them.

Kava, also called kava kava, is a member of the pepper family; its botanical name is piper methysticum. It’s a perennial shrub that grows slowly, and originated in the tropical Pacific islands, although it may now be grown elsewhere, especially in greenhouses.

The Polynesian islanders use it mainly in two ways: They chew the leaves, and they brew the rhizomes (roots) for tea. The tea especially is commonly seen at social occasions, where it’s used like alcohol, but is more socially acceptable. It’s also a staple for rituals, religious or otherwise (for example, resolution of disputes between individuals – probably because of its calming action!).

There has been research done on the actions of kava, but it’s been difficult to pin down because, like all plants, kava is a blend of many “ingredients” – phytochemicals – that act together. Most research, however, points to a group of six different kavalactones, which individually would have different effects, but in the whole plant work together.

The principal actions of kava seem to be to slow down the central nervous system and to relax the skeletal muscles. Research has compared it with benzodiazepines like diazepam (Valium), bromazepam and oxazepam. Kava seems to have the same calming action, but without the side effects. For example, while most of the synthetic drugs produce mental dullness, kava actually improves the ability to think. Also, it doesn’t have the potential for addiction that is associated with many synthetic drugs, and it doesn’t cause the user to hallucinate.

Kava is mainly used – and is approved in Europe – for the treatment of anxiety and depression. But it is also popular for muscle tension, headaches, general stress, and insomnia. In addition, its pain-relieving and anti-inflammatory qualities may help with menstrual cramps, bladder infections, and mouth problems, like toothaches. And its most recent use has been in the treatment of hyperactivity and ADHD.

However, it’s not recommended that you take kava if you’re also using antidepressants, tranquilizers, barbiturates, alcohol, or another central nervous system depressant. It has not been proven safe for use during pregnancy and nursing. And although most research has not identified side effects, it does sometimes decrease libido (sex drive). It’s also possible that people who have “contradictory” reactions to drugs that affect the central nervous system – meaning, those who are stimulated by alcohol or sedated by caffeine – would have a similar experience with kava.

Finally, if you haven’t been formally diagnosed with anxiety, depression, or any of the above conditions, but find yourself taking large or frequent doses of kava, it’s probably a good idea to talk to your doctor. Kava may not be addicting, but it’s possible you may need other treatment – for example, counseling – to help with the symptoms for which you take it.

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